Building Bridges to Equity: Andrea Harris in Education
When Andrea Harris taught online for the first time, there were few resources for teachers or students, and the technology base was little more than a message board.
“I remember coming in that first day and typing, ‘Welcome to the online world,’” Harris says. “‘I understand you’re new. Well, guess what? So am I. So we’re gonna hold each other’s hand and we’re not gonna let anybody fall.’”
In the 17 years since, Harris has adapted to new digital learning technologies and is currently an education consultant and adjunct professor at Jackson State University. She also recently joined the CourseGateway Product Advisory Board, hoping to sustain and expand its focus on equity and inclusion in evaluating quality digital learning products.
She is also the owner of and executive coach at The Arubah Group, LLC, a consulting firm providing training in business frameworks, mindset, and diversity, equity, and inclusion practices for organizations and individuals.
An Unexpected Journey
“I got here by accident,” Harris jokes about her teaching career. “I went to school to be an attorney. But by the time I got to my junior year, I decided it wasn’t what I had signed up for.”
After finishing a degree in political science, Harris began a master’s program in sociology. However, a shortage of teachers in her home state of Mississippi would change the course of her life. After acquiring an emergency K-12 teaching license, she began teaching full-time while completing her master’s degree.
Harris gravitated toward the burgeoning online learning field early in her career. “I started being an online professor when it wasn’t cool,” she says.
“There was no fancy name for it, no video calling. It was really challenging,” she recalls. “At the time I thought, ‘How am I going to make sure they have an amazing experience? They can’t see me. They can’t see my hand movements or my facial expressions. This classroom is gonna be insane.’ We were all new. We were learning together, so it was fun to make jokes about how behind we fell. It was just a great bonding experience.”
Harris often had the same students in different courses, and she encouraged students to lean on each other for support, fostering a strong sense of community.
Committed to Others
By the time the COVID-19 pandemic began, Harris was already very familiar with the courseware that many faculty, students, and their institutions would now begin to rely on heavily. It was during this time that she started her consulting practice and also heard about the CourseGateway Product Advisory Board from a colleague.
“I really started to focus on how I wanted to see change in education,” she says. “People always say you have to be the change that you want to see, so I really wanted to make sure I was assisting in closing the gaps in education, whether that was digital literacy or access to resources that some schools may not have.”
Harris is most excited about the diversity in locations, disciplines, and cultures among the members of the Product Advisory Board, and she hopes to contribute enthusiasm about the work of educators and students alike.
She connects her own enthusiasm, passion, and purpose with the birth of her daughter. “God knew I needed a girl because it softened me,” Harris says. “She’s very in tune with people. She feels it all, sees it all, and she carries it. I always felt like I needed to protect her, but she’s not the only one I need to protect.”
Harris chronicles her experience with postpartum depression and her ongoing fight for inclusion and representation in her book of poetry, Reflections of an Empress. She feels a special obligation to provide safe learning spaces for students like her daughter.
“A lot of times, the world and society make us so hard and disconnected to what happens,” Harris says. “She’s the opposite. I have to make sure I’m building an avenue so that children like her are able to navigate and flourish.”
Eyes on the Future
Harris is intrigued by the future potential of artificial intelligence to personalize courseware experiences and assist in including every learner. In her vision, artificial intelligence tools can take the more repetitive tasks out of the hands of instructors while also engaging students. “It would leave room for teachers to use their creative skills,” Harris says.
She has no hesitation crediting courseware and digital learning technologies with enabling equity efforts and accessibility for more students. But she’s also quick to point out the gap still to be bridged. For example, education technology has to confront accessibility issues for those with disabilities and for low-income students who complete coursework on their phones.
“It’s those fine details that we have to, as a society and more so as educators, hone in on,” she says. “If we hone in on it as educators, then it’ll trickle down from the people we impact.”